In this second installment of our two-part series, senior editor Marianne Puechl details the touching truths, comical interludes, heartaches and triumphs of her experiences through infertility and the adoption process.
They say the journey through infertility is a roller coaster. I liken our personal experience to a different carnival challenge: the labyrinth. Complete with dead ends, unexpected passageways, the feeling of going round in circles... yet always with that goal clearly in mind: the miraculous first touch and coo and smile of our own precious baby.
January, 2005 - Neither of us will forget the day we first went to the adoption agency: It was one of those life-moments that, at a glance, seems so mundane... yet in truth is anything but. There we were, two and a half years after we'd begun our quest to add a child into our family, now finding ourselves on the long drive across the state to the agency office, toting our dog and staying at a motel the night before as the introductory meeting was to last several hours that Saturday... The five-hour drive was uneventful and the scenery was flat and rather dull, but inside our white SUV we were a-buzz with conjecture and anticipation and joy. The morning of the meeting we stopped for pastries at a local coffeeshop: it was foggy and chilly and time moved slowly for us with the auspiciousness of the day.
At the introductory session, we met another gay couple, a heterosexual couple and a single woman also exploring their options through adoption. There were questions answered and fun exercises to play out and a video to watch, spotlighting various birthmothers and adoptive parents and their children. The stories were not always 'picture-perfect,' yet the realism brought Cindy and me to a revitalized sense of hope indeed. Our adoption coordinator said five simple words that, to this day, still make me teary-eyed. "It's not if, but when..." she told us reassuringly. And there were no further questions in our minds that this was the route to our baby.
Just about this time, I began a journal for our future child, sharing some of the details and anticipation we experienced throughout the adoption process. Every time I set about writing an entry, I imagined our son or daughter reading it sometime later with me... It became not only a gift for the baby, but an oasis for me. Truly, two and a half years had been a long wait... and even though the adoption felt like a fresh start, at times it was hard to believe that it marked a new certainty in our lives.
One new challenge that lay before us was the mountain of paperwork necessary for adopting. Some of it was tedious, such as extensive physicals and criminal background checks... but other parts of it were actually fun. -Marking checkboxes as we chose options as to what kind of adoption we would like (we preferred a newborn, we would be excited to welcome a biracial child into our family, we would consider a situation in which the birthmother had used certain types of drugs in the first trimester, we set our financial limits...) We began creating a family website, and put together ideas for our introductory letter that would be mailed out on our behalf to birthparents. Much of the paperwork involved answering essay-type questions about our own autobiographies, the parenting styles we envisioned for ourselves and the home life we planned to provide for our child.
Many of these things had been points of discussion between Cindy and me for years. Planning our family had been a high priority for us, so it was natural now and again for us to talk about it. -What the nursery would look like, how we would be good moms and what things we had to work on to be better ones, working out some of the discrepancies in our discipline strategies, even the basics such as how our work schedule would shift once the baby arrived.
By nature, Cindy is a storyteller, and she'd love to recount the tales of our baby-making experiences to friends and family, even to new acquaintances if they'd listen. One of her favorite jokes was how academic a process it quickly gets to be for same-sex couples to create their family, while for many heterosexuals the entire life-altering journey to parenthood begins on a rather unextraordinary Saturday night along the parkway with a six-pack of beer. Following that, she'd describe the stacks of paperwork and background checks and such we had to fill out in order to be considered as adoptive parents. Put the two facts together, she'd say, and it makes you wonder: Should there be a screening process for all prospective parents?... How many heterosexual couples discuss in such detail their family plans, arrangements, parenting techniques and strategies?... When the far-right conservatives make their claims that the gay community serves only to undermine the 'moral values' of our country's families, have they even begun to consider just how wanted and cherished and valued the children we are longing for really are?
Early November, 2005 - Many adoptive parents finish their paperwork within a few months; we completed ours, along with our Letter to Birthparents and our webpage, ten months after our initial intake with the adoption agency. What a reason to celebrate! We were officially in consideration now for birthparents to select us as the parents for their child.
With the agency and type of adoption we chose, it was not required for our names to sit at the 'bottom' of a list somewhere. Instead, we were in a pool with all the other adoptive families aligned with our agency: a birthparent could choose to contact us just as readily as they might choose any other.
Indeed it was an exhilerating time! Our counselor encouraged us to harness our excitement and put it to good use: to network ourselves through other adoption websites and related outlets, spreading the word that we were available as prospective parents for anyone considering adoption. Typically, we were told, we should expect to wait 12-18 months for our child's arrival.
We made other preparations too - updating the message on our answering machine, reviewing lists of questions and answers that a birthparent might want to talk about during a first conversation (believe me, it's quite nerve-wracking to anticipate that first call!)... Cindy even talked me into a new cell phone and finally, after years of dragging my feet about such things, I agreed to keep the phone turned on all the time. One of the unexpected perks, Cindy said, of this experience.
Thanksgiving, 2005 - A few weeks later I flew from our home in North Carolina out to California, to visit my parents for Thanksgiving. Cindy stayed home to mind the office, which allowed me a full week's visit with my family.
My parents have dial-up, so every other day I'd head to the local Starbuck's to check my email and catch up on business. That second drive, my sister Carol accompanied me and, as it turned out, it was wonderful that she was there to share the moment: Our First Contact! I simply held my breath when I opened my email inbox to find a note there from a young woman in Tennessee, due around Valentine's Day. Truly I vividly remember just about every swirl of that Starbuck's wallpaper, and the taste and scent of that gingerbread latte - it's a flavor that will forever bring a sweet smile to me. I called Cindy at once, and together we nervously replied to the email. ...It was just three weeks after our information had been officially posted with the adoption agency.
I cautioned my family that a first contact didn't always lead to the adoption we all hoped for; oftentimes a birthparent is just at the beginning stages of looking into her options, on occasion she pursues adoption but finds another couple... and rarely, a contact such as this one can in fact be sent as a prank, or by someone attempting to scam prospective parents out of money. But inside, of course, I was bubbling with joy.
We spent the next several days exchanging emails with this birthmother - Cindy and I sending out a letter after much discussion over the phone and critiquing ourselves, questioning our word choices and our exact answers to her questions. We wanted to sound excited, but not overly eager... We wanted to believe in our hearts this might be our child, but we also knew it was wise to temper our feelings with the reality that this was just the very beginning of our dialogue.
My family was wonderful - very supportive, as they had been all along over the past several years. They read the birthmom's emails with me and shared in my whirlwind of emotions.
Cindy and I both are lucky that way, in that our families have never taken issue with our desire to be parents; nor did they seem any less thrilled for us when we chose to adopt rather than to have a biological child. When we'd chat, my sister would regularly ask, "Any news yet on my niece or nephew??" And even before we had paperwork finalized with the agency, grandparents, aunts and uncles-to-be had sent along gifts, including precious newborn outfits, family keepsakes and a stroller. Their excitement helped keep ours intact, during those long months and years.
And so during Thanksgiving 2005, it was a delight to share the first contact we had with a birthmother with my own parents and sisters. Even though our child wasn't yet born, it was one important way we were gathering together as a family to welcome this new Little One into our lives.
December, 2005 - The birthmother from Tennessee stayed in touch for a little over a week, then asked us to send some photos from our wedding through the USPS mail. She wanted a sense of our commitment, and thus the commitment we'd be able to provide to our child. We took a couple days to compile a little photo book and sent it out to her. After that, we never heard back.
It was a challenge, to say the least. But not a heartbreak. Perhaps it was the fact that, after having been posted with the adoption agency for only three weeks, we were so surprised by the contact that we almost had a sense it was 'too good to be true.' Moreover, although a sad moment, it also brought a new frame of reference into our world: we now had actually experienced contact from a birthmother. It made everything about the hopes for our baby seem more real.
Christmas, 2005 - We took an uncommon break from work over the holidays, and decidedly I also took a break from checking my email. My professional emails are mixed with my personal, so it seemed like a good respite and a way to refresh for the upcoming New Year. After all, January would mark our fourth year of trying to bring a child into our lives.
Back at the office a few days later, my heart leapt when I turned on my computer and found a new birthmother's first contact waiting for us. It was amazing! Again, Cindy and I questioned our every word as we compiled a reply email... and, wonderfully, the birthmother responded within the next 24 hours. We exchanged a few more letters and within just days, the phone rang.
"Will this child be called 'my' baby, 'your' baby... or 'our' baby?" the birthmother asked, an hour or so after talking with Cindy that evening. I had run an errand, and arrived home to find Cindy on the back porch, phone to her ear, waving ridiculously to me. She was attempting to continue to sound calm to the person on the other end of the line, while managing to mouth the words to me: 'It's the birthmom, it's her!!"
All we did was cry, after that phone call. And jump up and down and laugh with joy. It seemed 2006 would be our year, after all.
January, 2006 - The time spent the next couple weeks, getting to know Birthmom Heather and her husband, was surreal. We had so much in common, in terms of our wishes for this unborn child... They had chosen us in particular, as a lesbian couple, because they wanted this baby to be raised with a liberal upbringing... Cindy and I quickly grew to admire and respect this young couple for so many reasons. We agreed to officially match with them without any second thoughts.
When the phone call came a few days later, and I was informed of the miscarriage, my first concerns were for Heather and her well-being. Her husband assured me she would be all right; though she was nearly hysterical with sadness and grief-stricken, he said, for our sake. She felt as if she'd let us down. The next few weeks were slow-time, and we were brought to face many unanswerable questions and process, yet again, utter disappointment.
Two beacons helped us make sense of that experience: First, Heather chose to re-contact us after a few weeks. We all cried together and decided to continue our friendship. To this day, we keep in close touch. She became an advocate for us and helped to spread the word that we were hoping to adopt. And now, we ask her questions about feeding schedules and teething remedies. Secondly, there was someone who shared a story that Cindy heard one day, many months prior. We repeated it to ourselves after the miscarriage often, out loud and through the quiet of our thoughts. It had been a story told by another adoptive mother, who was explaining how she had ultimately come to terms with her own infertility. 'I realized,' she said, 'after my adopted daughter had been with me for some time... Just how absolute was my adoration and love for her. And I thought to myself how grateful I was that, all those years, I had never been able to carry a biological child. Because if I had, then I'd never have been blessed with this child; I'd have missed out on this most perfect baby. She is my daughter. She is the one who was meant to be.'
Pride, 2006 - We had another brief contact from a birthmother in February who, after a week of dialoguing with us, decided to keep her child. Then, in June, I drove north to my hometown of Pittsburgh to visit with my sisters over Pride weekend. "Bring me home a baby!" Cindy grinned as we kissed goodbye that summer morning; she was recalling how last time I visited with my family, I'd received that first, first contact. Yet in fact it was to be, very nearly, the case.
Over the years, Pittsburgh Pride has grown and transformed measurably. From a short series of booths along a shadowed city block or two, now the event sprawls across the park between the Allegheny River and the Pirates baseball stadium and pumps the city with invigorated life and festivity. 2006 was a busy, enlivened event. Early that morning as I was setting up my booth, an acquaintance crossed the lawn to give me a hug. Lisa had recently moved to Pittsburgh from North Carolina (she had lived in the same town I did) and hadn't seen me for several months. We chatted briefly, catching up, then she had to be on her way.
Not long after, Lisa raced back across the grass. She was nearly breathless and wide-eyed with some very new kind of excitement: 'I just ran into a friend from choir...' she blurted to me, 'who told me she is pregnant and I said Congratulations but then she said No, you don't understand... I don't plan to keep the baby... Well we talked awhile and she's pretty sure about adoption and I said you and Cindy plan to adopt and that you're here today... And, well, she said she'd come over and meet you later! I know it's weird and if it's too uncomfortable just tell me and I'll butt out, but Oh My Gosh!!'
Everything about the day changed at that moment, of course. Beyond a day of Pride, it was now a day of life and new possibility. I was a-buzz with anticipation, and sure enough... a few hours later I was to have my first introduction to our daughter's birthmother.
Today - There are a thousand amazing nuances to our child's story, that would take pages and pages to share: how much in common we have with the birthfamily; the whirl of emotions that went with meeting them for the first time... what a coincidence it is that our daughter could have been born anywhere in the United States and yet was born in a hospital just about ten minutes away from where I myself was born... how Cindy and I surprised each other with rings and got engaged on a bridge in Atlanta back in 1999, and knew then that bridges would have meaning for us; Pittsburgh, as it turns out, is widely known as 'The City of Bridges...' just how truly thoughtful and health-conscious our baby's birthmother was during the pregnancy, and how we've now become an extended family... how, many years ago, Cindy and I noticed that dragonflies -symbols, pictures, decorations and even the real insects- would appear more often than not when we talked about our baby, and during that Pride in Pittsburgh I was wearing a shirt and a cap both trimmed with dragonflies when I met our daughter's birthmother.
One of the most touching moments occured when the birthmother and the hospital staff allowed both Cindy and me to be in the delivery room. Technically, only one of us was permitted, simply because the number of people must be limited. And yet both of us were there to see our daughter's head crown, both of us were there to hear her first cry and both of us were there to be the very first ones to hold her perfect little hands.
Parenthood is everything we'd dreamed it would be, and more. That may seem cliche, but's absolutely true. And at some point, we hope that in our home-state Cindy will be able to legally adopt our daughter... we hope that as a couple we'll be allowed to legally marry, and thereby provide even stronger assurances for our child's future. Those are issues we work and strive for, whenever possible, because now we know firsthand just how vital they truly are.
But these days, I am lucky enough to watch Cindy interact with our seven-month-old, to see finally how adorable she is as a mom. These days, we are amazed by every new thing our baby does as she explores her world. These days, we feel that much more like a family together.
And that makes all the other days gone by these past four years, filled with those labyrinthine challenges and seemingly endless moments of waiting and hoping ... all worthwhile.